Movies aimed at smaller, but appreciative audiences

 

By Leonard Heldreth
The films this month were not designed to be blockbusters but were aimed at a limited but generally appreciative audience.

DAMSEL

In an opening scene that hints at Samuel Beckett’s plays, Damsel telegraphs its plans to take varying degrees of liberty with the Western genre. Two men sit on a bench beside a barely discernable road that stretches in both directions across Utah’s desolate, red rock Goblin Valley, a region that hints at John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley. One of the two (Robert Forster), a grizzled older man wearing clerical garb, is waiting for a stagecoach to take him east; he’s fed up with trying to convert Indians to Christianity (too many Christians anyway, he says) and disgusted with the savagery, brutality, and general indifference he’s encountered in the West. He hopes to start fresh again in the East. The other (David Zellner, the film’s co-director) is waiting for a stage to take him west, where he hopes to make a fresh start in the land of opportunity. The two debate their conflicting views of the West until one, in a rage of depression, strips off his clerical black, throws it at the other, and runs off nearly naked into the desert. The tongue-in-cheek quality of this film is exemplified by the color of the buttes surrounding the men perfectly matching the pink of the fleeing man’s long underwear as he quickly disappears into the distance.

The next scene shows the “hero,” as he sees himself, opening a crate in a boat and leading out a half-sized palomino horse named “Buttercup” (played by Daisy). The man’s name is Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), a wealthy Easterner with a gold tooth, and he is taking the miniature horse to be a gift to the girl he intends to marry. The traditional view that a horse is a cowboy’s best friend nudges the horse’s size into absurdity. Alabaster takes his horse and supplies into a nearby town where he meets Parson Henry, one of the men from the opening scene, who is now wearing the clerical black clothes that were thrown at him, and hires Henry to marry Alabaster to his girlfriend, Penelope. Only after Henry agrees does Alabaster reveal that Penelope has been kidnapped by Anton (Gabe Casdorph), and they must rescue her before the marriage can be performed.

Along the way to finding Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), Alabaster gushes about her—“She’s the most precious thing in the world,” “she’s like a flower”–and sings in its excruciating entirety the song he has written about her entitled “Honey Bun.”  By this time the audience has discerned that Alabaster is not the brightest berry on the bush, and that most of what he says comes from a self-centered and not necessarily accurate viewpoint. They encounter a bearded mountain man named Rufus (Nathan Zellner), Anton’s brother, who exchanges a few gunshots with Alabaster, but when they reach Penelope, it becomes clear that she is not in a mood to be rescued, and would sooner shoot Alabaster than marry him.

The rest of the film includes a man being shot through the head while taking a leak, a suicide in an outhouse, and a Native American (Joseph Billingiere) bringing a note of sanity to the proceedings while muttering four-letter comments about stupid white men.

Robert Pattinson is excellent in this comedy role. After his work with David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), James Gray (The Lost City of Z) and the Safdie brothers (Good Time), he has scrubbed all hint of being a sexy vampire from his resume. Mia Wasikowska does well in a role that, frankly, is not as developed as it should be, but Joseph Billingiere and Robert Forster practically steal the show in their supporting parts. The Zellner brothers are quite adequate as both actors and directors, and a solid score is provided by The Octopus Project, an electrified combination of banjo, musical saw, fiddle, guitar and flute.

Many reviewers felt the film was not funny enough, went on too long, or suffered from other problems, but many reviewers are incapable of recognizing originality, and one reviewer’s hilarious scene is another reviewer’s dud. I found the film to be generally amusing throughout, and when it skewers some Western tropes, it can be laugh-out-loud. In one scene Alabaster is challenged in a run-down bar, where men prove their machismo by the prominence of their adam’s apples, as opposed to the usual men’s symbolic measuring contest using another part of the male anatomy. Whether a revisionist Western or not, Damsel upends many of the genre’s conventions, especially those regarding sex roles, and snickers at what is revealed.

FIRST REFORMED

Paul Schrader is widely regarded as one of the more interesting and personal but uneven talents working in American film. His script credits include Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, and he has directed over 20 films. At age 24, before starting to direct, he published a highly regarded work of film criticism: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. His most recent film, First Reformed, draws extensively from Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, as well as from Bergman’s Winter Light. Nor surprisingly, it takes up many of the themes of Shrader’s earlier films–man’s relationship to God, guilt and redemption, man’s need to act, and personal questions of despair and self-loathing.

The main character is the Rev. Ernst Toller, a minister who presides over the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. Coming up on its 250th birthday, the church used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to Canada, but now, with a minuscule congregation, it serves mostly as a souvenir shop for the adjacent 5,000-seat super-church, Abundant Life, run by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer).

As Toller has lost his direction and mission, First Reformed has lost its function. Like Bresson’s country priest, Toller is deep in despair, drinks heavily at night, keeps a journal in longhand, and may have stomach cancer. Coming from a military family and serving as a chaplain, Toller urged his son to join the army, but the boy was killed in Iraq, and in the ensuing despair, Toller’s wife left him. Submerged in guilt and doubt, he self-medicates but can barely summon the will to get through each day. He quotes Thomas Merton to himself, “Courage is the answer to despair,” but seems unable to take Merton’s advice or even to answer the question he raises about whether Jesus worried about being liked.

Into this frozen life comes Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a parishioner who needs help. Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a young man so caught up in environmental causes that he wants Mary to have an abortion, because it’s not appropriate to bring a child into a world spinning toward environmental obliteration. Toller tries to help Michael, but the interaction seems to have more negative effect on Toller than positive effect on Michael. It doesn’t help that one of the larger contributors to the church’s upcoming anniversary celebration is a major local polluter, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston). Then Mary finds a terrorist’s suicide vest hidden in their garage.

The photography and lighting are austere; the picture ratio is the old fashioned Academy 1.37:1, tightly confining the action and emphasizing the sharp angles and limited vistas. Ethan Hawke gives probably the best performance of his career, and Cedric Kyles is exactly right as Pastor Jeffers, who is trying to do the best he can for everyone involved.

The narrative at times veers into the outlandish. In one surrealistic scene Mary lies on top of Toller (both fully clothed), and they seem to float away on a tour of various pollution sites. Even more confusing is the ending with Toller wrapped in barbed wire with red stains spilling through his white gown while he embraces Mary and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” swells on the soundtrack; then the screen goes dark. Whether this ending makes sense, and what kind of sense it makes, is a question each viewer will have to answer. I have always had trouble with Schrader’s films, especially the ones with self-flagellating guilt trips; I think it may be necessary to have been raised a strict Calvinist to appreciate his message fully. Whatever the prerequisites, First Reformed is clearly a film for a limited audience. If it speaks to you, it will be a very powerful message; if not, the silence will be deafening.

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